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*Note: If you’re interested in the origins of Yugoslav nationalism, which this article touches on, I wrote something on it a while back titled “The Croatian Origins of Yugoslav Nationalism and Pan-Slavism.”


Nationalism has made itself increasingly visible in the past decade. Right-wing nationalist parties are organizing themselves throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and with great success. A new bloc is forming, an alliance of right-wing nationalists made up of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the Hungarian Civil Alliance, the Freedom Party of Austria, and many others. This has placed nationalism squarely at the center of Europe’s current predicament once again.   It seems history is repeating itself but with difference. Eastern Europe once again must come to grips with its national question(s), and must take the corpses out of the closet to ponder once more. A necessary moment of reflection, perhaps, but an all-too-familiar one in lieu of the past century. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of new states, Eastern Europe has been scrambled up once again as it was a century prior. Population politics have returned with new force, and the classical arguments made against them have proved to be all but useless in preventing their rise. The new wave of nationalism is bold, and it makes little natural claims to legitimacy; instead, it is playful, arbitrary, and aware of it. In a post-modern hogwash of competing ideologies, sheer political will triumphs.

I.   The National Question 

The “national question” was one of the prevailing debates within socialist thought in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was also the concern of Western powers who needed to decide how to appease the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europeans without tipping the scale in their own disfavor. Austria-Hungary and the British Empire grew increasingly concerned the so-called “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, and the political fallout of them exiting the southeast European theater. Marxists, however, were one of the few to treat the national question as something other than a case-by-case problem. Liberal scholars treated it as a regional issue, and therefore each respective region had its own “national question,” separate from one another. Of these, there were many – having to do with Poles, Jews, Italian irredentism in Dalmatia, Slavs in Austria-Hungary, Bulgarians, Turks in the Balkans, and many others. Yet, at the time, few of these were understood as being of the same historical trajectory guided by the then-developments of capitalism. They were seen as natural movements which fulfilled a historic promise of community; they were characterized as being previously “repressed, and now they were finally materializing. These nationalist promises were underscored with myths, poetry, and literature. Many of these peoples went through a period of cultural “rediscovery” in the latter-19th century. Languages were codified, and lost cultural artifacts were “found” from which cultural tradition was invented. Remarkably, despite being separately orchestrated to a large extent, these nationalist revivals were occurring at around the same time and in similar patterns.

By the late 19th century, Balkan nationalism became the central question of geopolitics for Europe. For the first time, nationalism and nation-states was viewed as the normative standard for attaining legitimacy in Eastern Europe. The concept of a nation was seen as a natural progression of their respective peoples, and, for them, the prior empires that occupied the Balkans repressed their cultural progress and prevented their peoples from realizing their historical goals. Therefore for Serbian nationalists, to give one example, the creation of the nation-state was seen as the pinnacle of their millennia-long struggle to establish a sovereign space for their peoples. Naturally, this required they determine who was included in this new national identity, and how territory would be parceled between them and other states. The “national question” soon became a central political concern across the Balkans and in all of Eastern Europe.

The argument for the nation-state is that it creates balance and represents parties with distinct cultural interests. The state in this schema is not just an administrative body, but also a cultural guardian, and an assertion of a group’s right to sovereignty and existence. The question that immediately arises when discussing nationalism is: what is the point of divergence between different peoples? Generally speaking, these distinctions are said to be based on blood, religion, or language, and they oftentimes overlap to together form a basal identity.  Yet, the nation-state is a recent development in European history. To have a state, one does not need to necessarily create a nation. As historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, there was a French state before there was anything remotely reminiscent of a “French people” [1]. What developed, however, from these states were nations, and old multi-cultural empires like Austria-Hungary soon led way to smaller, more homogeneous nation-states. These were said to be better representative of their newly-created peoples’ interests. This was the case in Eastern Europe, and the history of empire still weighs heavily on the national question there. The initial wave of national awakening happened post-1848 when liberal nationalism gripped the educated classes who identified as Poles, Croats, Serbs, and others. The respective populations were counted, shuffled around to appease certain demographics, and territories between states became contestable based on its language or culture. I have read scholars treat the history of Eastern European in stages [2] – the first wave until 1914 was anti-imperialist nationalism which had emancipatory potential; what came after was a period of destructive nationalism with violence being committed in Ukraine, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, and elsewhere with the intent of purging perceived foreign elements; and what followed after World War Two was a positive rehabilitation of nationalism. For the Western powers, nationalism was seen as undermining the Soviet Union and was therefore treated in different light in Western and American historiography after World War Two.

However, these are not separate “eras” of nationalism that should be valued irrespective of one another. In his essay Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means, philosopher Slavoj Zizek pushes back against this notion that “healthy” nationalism can be separated from fanaticism and he cites the Yugoslav wars of secession during the 1990s as a reference point. The so-called “good” nationalism of the late 19th century provided the phantasmic structure that allowed for nationalist fantasies to be played out as violently as they did later on. It is the “healthy” nationalism that structures the nationalist fantasy (what Zizek calls the “dirty water”) and maintains its spiritual purity [3]. To decouple these is to effectively de-historicize it, and leaves the national question unresolved. The West distanced itself from Balkan nationalism to escape the “ethnic bug” of sectarian fanaticism, but their soft nationalism is in fact the opposing side of the same, nationalist violence they were viewing during the wars of Yugoslav secession. This is partly why a Western state cannot properly account for the national question, or even resolve it politically: it affirms its presumptions, and tries to decouple the bad nationalism from the good which leaves the phantasmic structure of nationalism still intact. The nation-state deals with the national question through particulars while it is a question of grander, material history which both “soft” and fanatical, ultra-nationalism are implicated in.

Although modern Western politics has painted liberal democracy and nationalism as oppositional forces, their histories are interwoven with one another. They answer fundamentally different questions: while “democracy is the institutional expression of the tenet of self-rule of the people, nationalism addresses the problem of who are ‘the people’” [4].  Therefore, when liberal historians critique the national question they are in effect also critiquing of a fundamental tenet of their own  ideology. By looking into the Balkans, the Westerner finds solace in their own neutral “soft” nationalism, but they are looking at their own reflection; they are us, and vice-versa. The brazen nationalist politics and violence in the Balkans is merely a replay of the original, national question that Westerners needed to resolve centuries prior. And it was them, too, that created their own homogeneous space, and excluded others, all in the context of liberalism. French philosopher Étienne Balibar, in a 1999 lecture in Thessaloniki, Greece remarked that:

The fate of European identity as a whole is being played out in Yugoslavia and more generally in the Balkans. Europe has two options… either [it] will recognize in the Balkan situation not a monstrosity grafted to its breast, a pathological ‘after-effect’ of underdevelopment or of communism, but rather an image… of its own history, and will undertake to confront it and resolve it and thus to put itself into question and transform itself [5].

Nationalism plays out again and again, repeating with difference, but continues to  reproduce itself because the problems underlying it remain unresolved. We are currently witnessing the new wave of right-wing nationalist politics in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It repeats because the question of nationalism has yet to be properly answered. Instead, distance has been created between its particular symptoms. When nationalism is treated solely by its particulars, with individual national histories, the assumed distance that is said to exist between each nationalist narrative ends up reproducing the same ambiguity and contradictions continuously – the “dirty water” of nationalism, the perceived good in it, and all the rest.

II.   Ambiguous Spaces

Nation and the VillageLiberal historiographers have naturalized the process of nationalism into a linear, homogeneous trajectory. On the ground, it was a different story and one of sectarianism, negotiation, and forced assimilation. The tension comes from the nature of the nation-state itself, and how it determines who are its “people.” Given that the majority in Eastern Europe and the Balkans were peasants, this oftentimes involved a communication between the upper-classes of their respective societies and the peasant base. Keely Stauter-Halsted in The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 uses the region of Galicia as an allegory for other nationalist projects of the time. The creation of nationalism generally took a similar form among all peasant Slavs and others living in Eastern Europe. There needed to be a unified, nationalist front among all classes of the people in question, but this involved correcting the grey areas, regions where nationalist identity was not so clear. These regions were plentiful because the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe oftentimes had a multiplicity of allegiances. Keely Stauter-Halsted calls these “nested identities,” and they oftentimes overlapped. How these people identify, she writes, was based on many different allegiances, and their most immediate one was their local community and dialect. For Austrian Poles, their allegiances were multifold: many had their own nested identities that they clung to including the Austrian state and the Catholic Church [6]. For the peasant living under the rule of an empire in Eastern Europe, the nationalist project involved evoking all of these interwoven identities that rested on “regional, extra-regional, and social attachments” [7]. The goal was to channel them into one cohesive vision that could be adopted as an organizing principle for the new nation-state. Previously, these old, pre-modern identities were not channeled into a particular politics; they only denoted specific kinds of allegiances, and provided social organization on some basic, intelligible level whether it be Catholicism or allegiance to the emperor. And because these identities overlapped, there was intelligibility between them and this made them ripe for appropriation by nationalist politics.

In Galicia, the peasant elite increasingly began articulating the public agenda as the “welfare of the nation” by the late-19th century [8]. However, for the elites and their upper-class allies, the “nation” denoted a much different concept than how it was understood by the majority of the population, the peasantry. Galicia is just a microcosm of a greater process that occurred in Eastern Europe in the latter-half of the 19th century where elites began a long and sustained entry into peasant cultural life, and were constantly negotiating their “patriotic message” with their respective peasant audiences [9]. For many of these peasants, these interactions gave them a glimpse of what would be characterized as modern, civic life, but yet they “still remained rooted in the rituals, customs, and beliefs of ‘premodern’ agricultural communities” [10]. The goal of the educated nationalists was therefore to appropriate many of these images into vague references, and use it to “camouflage the heterogeneous nature of national identity” [11]. Therefore, the most significant rift in early-developing nationalist consciousness was on class lines between the elites and the peasant class. Soon, the discourse they used merged despite being interpreted differently by each class. One such example, Keely Stauter-Halsted writes, was the annual celebration of the 1791 Polish Constitution: for the upper-class, the day signified an “opposition to foreign rule,” but for the peasants it was a time for “staging agrarian rituals around maypoles in the countryside” [12]. The peasants negotiated the meaning of the national vision with their elite counterparts. They rooted them in village traditions and this provided them a basis why they could now associate with the new national character. It became familiar to them. Peasant nationalism spread from village to village, discussed in pubs and local events, and constantly vied for legitimacy among other competing subcultures. And in a “discursive sleight of hand,” elites in Austrian Poland performed peasant folk culture and in their writings spoke of a natural, nationalist consciousness forming; their historiography was one of triumph of a homogeneous group of Poles reaching their true identity [13]. They spoke little of the struggle present on the local level, and the discussions had, and the “nested identities” constantly conflicting with each other. Instead, nationalist historiography was about homogeneous movement forward, and the educated class narrativized peasant nationalism into a justification for sovereignty and a new state of affairs. As the peasants were determining the “nation” on a local level, the elite class was codifying these developments into a clear, historical trajectory.

Many ambiguous spaces existed in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century which became battlegrounds for nationalist politics. Galicia is just one of many. In Jeremy King’s text Budweisers into Czechs and Germans, he writes of the contested space in Southern Bohemia where “for at least seven centuries, [there were] at least three ethnic groups: the Czech majority, a strong German minority, and… a less numerous but nonetheless influential Jewish minority” [14]. It was only “the ninetieth and twentieth century that elevated these relations… to a relationship among modern nations” [15]. King quotes Jörg Hoensch in History of Bohemia in pointing out that German-ness was based not only in culture or religion, but also in perceived common history. The wars of liberation against Napoleon captured the German historical experience, but “it gripped few Germans in Bohemia” [16]. Historiographies of Austria-Hungary, and specifically even Bohemia, have been mostly national histories instead of histories of nationalism. Ethnicity, here, then becomes a predecessor to nations, and nationalism is the outgrowth of natural, ethnic divisions. However, ethnic groups are not “historical antecedents but national products” – and some, like historian Gary Cohen, have gone as far as to argue that, in the case of Czechs and Germans, “socioeconomic standing accounted better than did ethnicity for how residents became national” [17]. Oftentimes, nationalism was adopted by Austria-Hungarian minorities to aspire to political primacy, and it was through political will that Croats, Czechs, and others were able to naturalize their respective nationalisms. They needed to be interpolated as a separate group by an authority, and Austria-Hungary adopted ethnic splits as mode of politics which ultimately undermined its legitimacy.

III.   The National Question after World War One

In the years following World War One, two concepts were pushed in tandem: minority rights and forced deportations. Eric D. Weitz in From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions speaks of this development as a transition between the old model of Vienna to the new Paris system. Whereas the Vienna system of states was based on dynastic legacy and sovereignty, the new post-WW1 system had a new geopolitical configuration where each state was a representative of its own homogeneous ethnic space. This distinction was made on two major points: (1) the confounding of ethnicity, nationalism, and sovereignty and (2) “the development of the civilizing mission into a comprehensive program” to boost the numbers of the nation so that it can bee seen as a legitimate state [18]. In the summer of 1919, the Allies needed to deal with a different national question emerging in Eastern Europe with the dissolution of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires. The logic of self-determination forced a response, and two solutions emerged: “populations could either be protected or removed” [19]. A population could derive rights from its numbers alone, and the relationship between nationalist violence and the protection of minorities in Europe parallel each other in 20th century history. Weitz specifically writes of the Greek-Bulgarian exchange promulgated by the then Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos. In 1913, he proposed “the notion of moving around hundreds of thousands of people to create homogenous states” so that the political lines were drawn in the “exact accordance… or approximate accordance… [of the] limits of their ethnical domain.” From this, the “Society of Nations [would] be created” [20].

Bulgaria

Nationalist politics in Eastern Europe soon turned against its neighbors as they struggled to define who their “people” were and came to a head on the eve of World War One. This is a propagandized postcard of that time illustrated by Alexander Bozhinov (Александър Божинов). The postcard depicts a satirical caricature of Bulgarian soldier hanging Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and French enemy soldiers like laundry.

The Western response to the national question after World War One was to naturalize these relationships between nation-states through legal means. It created international, rights-based protections for minorities, while also allowing for states to determine their own homogeneous spaces. This proved politically unstable as many of the newly-created Eastern European nations had heterogeneous populations and the influx of refugees from Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere created an international policy of minority protection by the League of Nations which soon became unenforceable by the 1930s because of sheer numbers.  There was a large influx of stateless people who, without belonging to a nation-state, effectively had no rights. Through peace treaties, Western powers attempted to regulate peoples in Eastern Europe by offering a model of minority rights. The old nation-states of the West were themselves, though, unable to grapple with the problem of minority status in their own liberal states, and it remained “even more doubtful whether it could be imported in an area which lacked the very conditions for the rise of nation-states” [21].

From the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, there was a belt of mixed populations [22]. In Latvia, a quarter of the population was a minority ethnic group; twenty percent were minorities in Lithuania; in Czechoslovakia, a quarter was German; and within the borders of Poland, only 70% were ethnically considered Polish [23]. Some regions became ethnically ambiguous, such as Czech Silesia, Transylvania, and Macedonia which was a contested space between Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks [24]. In the West, identification transitioned from religious identity to cultural affiliation and citizenship after the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th century; however, Eastern Europe maintained a religious-national consciousness, where Catholic Poles could differentiate themselves from Protestant Germans or Orthodox Russians. These relationships were intensified after World War One, but the conflict between these groups had been present in peasant life in the region for at least a century. Economic stratification soon took on the form of these identities where Estonian and Latvian peasants worked for German barons, or Ukrainian minorities worked for Polish lords [25]. The slippage between class and nationality became the instigator of pogroms where these two concepts confounded to spark violence. The 1907 peasant revolts in Moldavia began as an anti-Semitic riot in the northern part of the region before expanding into protests against the land-owning class more broadly. Other identities were recuperated into class antagonisms as ethnic conflicts took on a class dimension but played themselves out as nationalist violence.

IV.   The Current Wave of Population Politics

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the national question has once again reappeared in Eastern Europe after the lid was kept on it for decades. It was not as if during Soviet occupation such questions were not asked, but nationalist politics were effectively frozen for decades. Much had changed during this time, however. After World War Two, the border between Western and Eastern Europe effectively “shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East” [26]. Now, they are independent states, and these perceived wrongs could be corrected.  Since the 90s, questions of nationalism have thawed in Eastern Europe and have once again entered popular discourse. The old, nationalist population politics of the late 19th and early 20th century have reappeared, yet now they come as alarmist and dire because of perceived cultural loss. The national question was left unresolved, and has now reappeared with ressentiment. The current wave has been instigated by reasons other than ones that pushed it during the turn of the 20th century. Russian diaspora politics has been revitalized by Russian nationalism and its reach is felt in Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, and other ex-Soviet states that still have sizable Russian minorities. Diaspora politics more generally have become a crucial political tool for ruling powers in Eastern Europe especially in light of falling birthrates post-1989. Croatia, for example, used diaspora politics in the 1990s to grant ethnic Croats living abroad in Bosnia and elsewhere proper citizenship and voting right – ultimately, pushing the Croatian nationalist party HDZ over the edge and to victory [27]. In 1999, the right-wing coalition in Poland reached out to ethnic Poles in Ukraine and Lithuania through citizenship and immigration policy to spur tourism, investment, and economic growth [28]. This new wave of Eastern European nationalism based on diasporic kin has created a “cross-border [network] of interdependent and patronage between homeland states and diaspora elites” while also increasing the potential of “inter-ethnic tensions” [29]. Kinship on ethnic ground forges ties within communities and minorities of other nation-states which ultimately empowers secessionist politics. The political ramifications of diaspora politics are strongly felt in Macedonia and Kosovo where the national question has led to cultural disputes over historical narratives and whether a region that is significantly Albanian is justified in being allowed to join Albania [30].

In the early 20th century, nationalism was justified by empiricism and perceived natural difference. It was made into a science, and it could be scrutinized as such. Now, however, we have reached a different form of nationalism – one which, increasingly, cannot be discredited by the mere fact that it is arbitrary. The mono-ideology of Sovietism has collapsed, and many individual nationalist ideologies have come to reclaim their place of power. We live today in a world of relativistic difference, of many competing narratives, none of which are deemed “correct.” Post-modernism provides coverage for all of these previously bastardized ideologies — nationalists, ethnic purists, traditionalists, etc., because it raises the floor for all of them. They are all fighting on the same turf, because post-modernism privileges none of them. The only aspect that makes nationalism “real” is its political will. This is even demonstrated in an old Slavic myth about Vladimir the Great. It is said that in the year 987, Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the world to pick one for his people. Islam was undesirable because of its taboos on alcohol and pork; Jews had lost Jerusalem, and therefore they were God’s abandoned children; and Catholicism was too dull (surprisingly). He settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity because its festivals had a phantasmic quality… “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth” [31]. The choice was arbitrary, but it was the historical precedent thereafter that linked Orthodoxy with the Russian ethnicity. How could one argue against an identity when its adherents recognize its arbitrariness? Within this nationalist fantasy lies something deeper that cannot be accounted for with reason alone.

The Eastern European attachment to nationalism has many origins, but in the current era, it is characterized by cultural anxiety over declining status and the precarity of workers in Eastern Europe. This instability necessitates a need for community, one which is satisfied by nationalism. If nationalism cannot be accounted for by reason alone, then we must diagnose the forces that push individuals into these categories. In their precarity, nationalism provides community. Although arbitrary, there are clear historical trajectories that underscore nationalism as an ideology and grant it an actually-existing justification. And even when Vladimir the Great was choosing a religion for his people, a political calculation was made amidst it all. It was not only that Orthodoxy was aesthetically beautiful for him, but Byzantine impressed him as a political system and as a power. It was geopolitically beneficial for Orthodoxy to be pinned to Russian identity, and the historical forces placed its peoples into this constructed category. Although nationalism now requires no “objective” narrative to derive legitimacy, the material conditions ultimately provide that narrative. History thus pushes us and provides the actually-existing justification for narratives that would have previously been unfounded. The social forces are too great to be undermined by their arbitrariness, for what makes Russian nationalism any less arbitrary than Western liberalism? Any criticism of Eastern European nationalism on these grounds ultimately ends up reflecting back the arbitrary construction of Western nation-states. The national question, thus, cannot be resolved by appealing to its Western reflection; the creation of rights-based politics and protections during the 20th century merely naturalized nationalism’s historical trend, and tried to decouple “soft” nationalism from its true, fanatical base. Instead, ethnic and national categories must be decoupled from their socioeconomic origins; it is only by addressing the precarity of modern labor, and the anxiety it brings, can the community be rehabilitated beyond just nationalism.

***

[1]  Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), Chapter II, 80–81.
[2] Yugoslav scholars oftentimes rehabilitated nationalist anti-imperialist struggle against the Austria-Hungarians by describing it as “good nationalism.” For a more concrete example, I cite Thomas T. Hammond’s article Nationalism and National Minorities in Eastern Europe in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1966), on pages 9-31 who makes this exact argument.
[3] Slavoj Zizek. Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means (InterCommunications, 18: 1997).
[4]  Pavel Barša, “Ethnocultural Justice in East European States and the Case of the Czech Roma” in Can Liberal Pluralism Be Exported?: Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe (Oxford University Press: 2002), 243.
[5] Tanja Petrovic. Thinking Europe without Thinking: Neo-colonial Discourse on and in the Western Balkans. (Eurozine: 2007). Web: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-09-22-petrovic-en.html
[6] Keely Stauter-Halsted writes that even well into the beginning of the 20th century, there were still Poles who resisted the nation-state and still referred to themselves as the “emperor’s people.”
[7] Keely Stauter-Halsted. The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 (Cornell University Press: 2004), 8.
[8] Ibid., 3.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 5.
[14] Jeremy King. Budweisers into Czechs and Germans (Princeton University Press: 2002), 6.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 9.
[18] Eric D. Weitz. From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions. (American Historical Review: December, 2008), 1315.
[19] Ibid., 1329.
[20] Ibid., 1335.
[21] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1st edition: 1973), 268.
[22] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 270.
[23] Ivan T. Berend. Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II (University of California Press: 2001), 43.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., 45.
[26] Milan Kundera. The Tragedy of Central Europe. (New York Review of Books Volume 31, Number 7: 1984), 1.
[27] Myra A. Waterbury. From Irredentism to Diaspora Politics: States and Transborder Ethnic Groups in Eastern
Europe (Center for Global Studies: July, 2009), 4.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 7.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Marvin Kalb. Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press: 2015), ch. 4.

In Nazi ideology, the Fuhrer is the living embodiment of the people’s community (volksgemeinschaft); he is the manifestation of the people’s will, and thus ties the entire presentation and ideological system (weltanschauung) together as one cohesive whole. Yet, the “Fuhrer principle” is not wholly explanatory of Nazism, nor should it be taken to be [1]. Rituals, symbols, and their repetition were crucial in the presentation and maintenance of Nazism as an ideological hegemon. This much is obvious – one cannot escape the prevalence of grand illustrations of Nazi spectacles in Western popular media, given the photos of the momentous Nuremberg rallies and others, especially seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. They have been seared in the public mind, but in doing so, they have also been mostly emptied of historical context.

Nazism would not have been as successful as it was had there not been historical precedent, and this continuity is crucial to demarcate because it places us squarely in the minds of the German spectator, and grants us an understanding of the allure behind the presentation. Thus, the purpose of this essay is twofold – for one, it aims to further affirm the claims that ritual was crucial to the maintenance of weltanschauung and relied on it; and secondly, I will demonstrate that Nazi rituals harkened back to forms of previous mass public expressions (Catholic, Protestant, Teutonic, and otherwise) which were emptied of their prior substance and used for other ideological ends, namely that of the Nazi state. These rituals took the form of religion in what German legal scholar Herman Heller pithily called “Catholicism without Christianity” [2]. Nazism transformed religion’s rituals and politically utilized it by “[obscuring its] transcendence by means of an ever-larger infusion of ritual” [3]. I hope to show how ritual and historical continuity was one of the central spectral features of the weltanschauung, and was thus integral to its legitimacy.

3016909-poster-1280-nazinuremberg

I. The Main Components of the Nazi Mythos

A dominant group demands a mythos for it be seen as historically legitimate. One cannot discuss political rituals, or any tradition, without discussing their mythologized origins. As Eric Hobsbawm writes, “[invented traditions] are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition” [4]. This type of historical “play” – the usage of history for ideological ends – necessitates a myth and presentation in order for it to be viewed as a consistent narrative by its viewers. The Nazis were able to do so by creating a “holy history,” sanctifying their politics to works towards their mythologized ends [5].

The religious amenities of fascism are well-documented. Academic Paul Mazgaj writes:

Translating the ancient religious topos of death and redemption into a secular myth of national decadence and renewal, fascists were able to project an incredible dynamism, sense that a new society would soon rise from the ashes of the dying one [6].

Several authors had commented on the relationship between mythology and politics more generally. Emilio Gentile theorized about the sacralization of politics as one involving a political liturgy, an elect community, and a specified code of ethics [7]. Karen Anderson has written of the necessity of “sacrifice, liturgy, and ritual” in mythology [8]. Stanley Stowers in his piece The Concepts of ‘Religion,’ ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism asks us a pressing question – “did National Socialism break down the wall that modernity had recently erected between the secular domain of politics and the domain of religion?” [9]. Perhaps a glimpse of the answer can be found in a quotation from the National sozialistishe Monatshefte in its September, 1938 issue:

It is said that the body belongs to the state, and the soul to the Church or God. This is no longer the case. The whole man, body and soul, belongs to the German nation and to the German state. The latter has also taken all matters of faith under its own control [10].

This supposed “breakdown between politics and religion” must first be understood through the basis of Nazi ideology – the myth.

The Nazi mythos can be broken up into four main mythological “clusters.” Firstly, there is the myth of the leader or messiah represented through the Adolf Hitler whose goal is to unite and lead the volk towards historical salvation. Secondly, there are the people themselves (volksgemeinschaft), who form a community united all under the domain of the Fuhrer. Third is the concept of degeneracy or the myth of culturally alien things which pose a threat to the volk. Nazism depended on moral dualism, which several scholars such as Hamilton Twombly Burden have dubbed “Manichean,” which rests on the premise that all things fall on one of two sides of the dividing line – that which is “good or bad, right or wrong, or us or not of us” [11]. The Manichean evil in this scheme then, for Nazism, is the Jew who represents “the war of life or death” but extends even greater to include everything that is assumed non-German including socialists, Roma people, the disabled, and Slavs [12]. Fourth and last is salvation or rebirth which scholar Rodger Griffin has called “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” taken from the Greek word palingenesis meaning “becoming again” [13]. For Nazism, this rebirth or salvation would come as a cataclysmic end during which all cases of prior anomie, degeneracy, and moral crises would be resolved through the Fuhrer. This is Nazi salvation history (heilsgeschichte), sacralized politics for this world and not the next, which affirmed the reality of their cause; they thus painted reality in this mythos and saw themselves as Germany’s proper eternal return. In doing so, they also created the conditions with which to justify their political ascension.

II. The Necessity of Ritual

Public rituals in Nazi ideology served to create internal consensus where the spectacle would work as a mass suggestion. This was done through huge parties and grandiose architectural feats. And Hitler himself knew the allure of these spectacles. Simon Taylor in Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism brilliantly connects these grandstanding rituals to Hitler’s own words, quoting him writing after a socialist rally in Berlin just after WW1:

A sea of red flags, red scarves, and red flowers gave to this demonstration, in which an estimated 120,000 took part, an aspect that was gigantic from the purely external point of view. I myself could feel and understand how easily the man of the people succumbs to the suggestive magic of a spectacle so grandiose in effect [14].

The Nazi leadership understood the power of these performances. The rituals therefore accomplished a crucial role in the ideological framework of Nazism – it tangibly created the volksgemeinschaft which could be felt and seen, and hence “allowed for mechanisms of mass suggestion [to] operate” [15]. Spaces were thus architecturally designed to concentrate the crowd’s attention on the centerpiece: the Fuhrer or the holy symbol representing him [16]. Such fixtures were previously only seldom used for anything other than holy presentations. Architect Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light” (Lichtdom) drew on this historical continuity sharply, and Goebbels even spoke of the “need to emulate the mysticism of the Roman Catholic Church at party rallies” [17]. It is through these spectacles that the Nazis were able to stage-manage the psychological process of identification by using grandiosity and rituals to affirm their ideology’s superiority against the Manichean evil they were fighting against.

III. The Nazification of Tradition and Ritual

Simon Taylor identifies three types of National Socialist celebrations present in various forms from 1919 to 1945: (1) celebration of the National Socialist Year (Jahreslauf), (2) morning celebrations (Morgenfeiern), and (3) life celebrations (Lebensfeiern) [18]. Celebrations marking the National Socialist calendar year were most common and these included the Founding of the Party Programme (February 24th), the Fuhrer’s birthday (April 20th), and the commemoration of the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch (November 9th)[19]. Taylor also mentions other holidays which were previously Christian or labor holidays, but were re-imagined for Nazi purposes such as Christmas and Labor Day. The Nazi Party would use these public holidays to organize support as scholar Barry Stephenson notes in one such example in 1933 when the party rallied in Wittenberg’s Marketplace on the Protestant holiday of Reformation Day, October 31st [20]. In other such example of historical rewriting, the Nazi Party transformed Remembrance Day on March 16th, a day meant to mourn the fallen of World War One, to a day of pride and triumph where “the swastika flag was no longer to be lowered to half-mast, but flown proudly… as a symbol of Germany’s reawakened faith and pride” [21]. Taylor notes that many other holidays suffered the same fate including “Easter, Mother’s Day, Whitsun, [and] the Harvest Thanksgiving” [22]. These Christian and, in some cases, old pagan Teutonic customs, needed to be revived to counter what they called “Jewish-Marxist materialism” [23]. These state-sanctioned holidays created a cycle of “high holy days” which were meant to resemble religious calendars and signified when the people would carry out their yearly rites.

One particular ritual – the 9th of November – became central to the Nazi myth of palingenesis. It was here that narratives were transformed, connecting the defeat in 1923 to Nazi victory in 1933. The message of the ritual was of rebirth and martyrdom, that the spilling of Nazi blood during that failed coup was a prerequisite to the “historical inevitability” of National Socialism. On the morning of November 9th, 1935, Hitler unveiled the Bloodflag (Blutfahne), the flag carried by the conspirators in 1923. It was stained by the flag of its martyrs and was brought out to consecrate the newly-built Temple of Honor in Munich where the sixteen fallen party members were housed. The Bloodflag was a holy symbol and was thus unveiled only on the 9th of November and at Nuremburg during Reichsparty-day [24]. During its presentation, names of the fallen were read as upwards of thousands assembled party members and Hitler Youth responded “Here!” in unison. In this quasi-religious ceremony, the Fuhrer would symbolically unite the living with the dead – united through blood and honor. As Taylor writes, the Bloodflag was the “essential confirmation of the Nazi mythos” [25] symbolizing the Christian cross with Hitler as its figurehead, consecrated as Christ. If it had not already, Nazism had begun to take on religious signification with the unveiling of the Bloodflag. The flag was a “sanctuary,” the blood of the fallen was “holy,” and the Reich was “eternal” as it was constantly repeated through Nazi rhetoric [26].

In order to further affirm their fight against the Manichean evil, public gatherings were planned to combat presumed “degeneracy.” Book burnings were a staple where texts by Jews, certain intellectuals, and leftists were driven around in carriages through the streets for all to see and then subsequently burned. The ritual was not unprecedented in European history – for they were “reminiscent of both the medieval book burnings of Talmudic and heretical texts as well as the Catholic ceremony of the auto-da-fe” during which heretics were burned alive in a public act of penance [27]. An art exhibit of “degenerate art” was also organized by Adolf Zeigler and the Nazi Party 1937 to present to the German people the values that had previously undermined their society.

IV. Closing

Ritual and presentation were not peripheral to Nazi ideology. In fact, they were central to it. These public spectacles solidified the state’s supreme power, and touched on all facets of the Nazi mythos: the supremacy of the Fuhrer, the people’s community, the historical enemy, and Germany’s rebirth as a nation. Throughout all these spectacles, the fixation remained on the Fuhrer. Whereas such presentations were previously reserved for holiness, Nazism made politics sacrosanct; it reappropriated previously-religious symbols and rituals and emptied them of content, and thus filled them for their own use. And if it were not for this historical precedent, Nazism would have had little momentum. It required these historical parallels – and its party members acknowledged their mythic power, and organized with its help. Thus, although not a religion, Nazism took on religion’s mystical form and broke the barrier between the state and religion. It was a quasi-religious ideology without transcendence, Catholicism without Christ, but to its fervent followers, it was so much alike that they followed and swore its allegiance to it all the same.

***

[1] A succinct explanation of the Fuhrer Principle was said by Rudolf Hess at the end of Triumph of the Will: “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler.”
[2] Max Ascoli, Arthur Feiler, Fascism for Whom? (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1938), 281.
[3] Richard Grunberger, The 12-Year Reich (New York: DeCapo Press, 1971), 72.
[4] Eric Hobsbawm, Terrance Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3.
[5] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan. 2007): 9.
[6] Paul Mazgaj, Imagining Fascism: The Cultural Politics of the French Young Right (Cranburby, NJ: Rosemond Publishing, 2007), 30.
[7] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 16.
[8] Karen Armstong, A Short History of Myth (New York: Cannongate, 2006), 2-9.
[9] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 10.
[10] Otto of Austria, “Christianity and National-Socialism,” World Affairs, Vol. 105, No. 2 (June 1942): 76.
[11] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” Ex Post Facto, Volume XIX (2010): 47.
[12] Wilard Gaylin, Hatred (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2003), 221.
[13] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 40-41.
[14] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec. 1981), 511-512.
[15] Ibid., 512.
[16] Ibid., 513.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 505.
[19] Ibid., 505-506.
[20] Barry Stephenson, Performing the Reformation: Public Ritual in the City of Luther (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 10.
[21] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” 506.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 509.
[25] Ibid., 510.
[26] Ibid., 513.
[27] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 53.

propNationalism works within a unique niche in contemporary society. It is constantly romanticized by its proponents, described as both necessary and natural, despite having to reinvent itself with every new epoch. Nationalism prides itself on its continuity, but it is constantly changing the means with which it defines itself. In a symbolic gesture, nationalism “mediates the past with the future, while providing an effective dimension for the present” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 255). It gives the appearance of historical resemblance in a reality that is actually ever-changing and fluid. The Enlightenment and Romanticist literary movements have played their part in developing national consciousness by describing nationalism as eternal, static, and even “infinite.” Ironically, it is because of the ordinariness of capitalist standardization that nationalism found its sincerest and most passionate supporters. The fact that nationalism rose during a time of emerging economic automation and science is no coincidence – National consciousness had to be created as a means to cope with the turbulent alienation of modernity.

I. Essentialism Is Inseparable from Nationalism

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

The eternal flame is the distinctive marker of national honor. It is used to respect those who died for their homeland, or to venerate political figures of national importance. The “eternal” in this fiery symbol is an all-encompassing depiction of the nation-state; the nation is conceived as immaterial, unique, and timeless by its most fanatical believers and oftentimes heightened to quasi-religious proportions. This line of rhetoric is characteristic of a philosophical position which dates back to Greek Antiquity – essentialism. Essentialists posit that there exists an objective, core quality to a particular person or group that is inherent in their very being. Therefore, essentialism is also an a priori claim on human nature.  This philosophy can take on different forms. It can function within an individualistic framework where attributes are assumed for an individual based on how they can be characterized more generally (race, gender, etc.). Ethno-nationalism derives its power from an essentialist position, arguing that their particular group constitutes a natural identity and one that has a greater historical narrative they are destined to complete. It is the position that “nations are natural, organic, quasi-eternal entities” rather than products of historical forces (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). Essentialist nationalism is thus the position that the individual is second to the community and therefore owes allegiance to the nation.

6a00d83451cdc869e20120a8b4166c970bVirtually all of nationalism functions as essentialist in how it conceives itself. The concept of “the nation” rests on four major ideas that Benedict Anderson in the introduction to his book Imagined Communities outlines. Firstly, the nation is imagined. It is imagined because, although conceiving of themselves as a group, “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (Anderson, 15). Secondly, the nation is limited. Each national group has finite boundaries with which it defines itself. Anderson makes an effort to clarify this distinction by arguing that “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation…” (Anderson, 16). In other words, nationalism is by its very design limited in scope; Nationalists does not seek the expansion of all people within its borders. Instead, they value most those that culturally qualify as their own.  Thirdly, moving forward, the nation is sovereign. Nationalism requires a state to enforce itself or else it falls into obscurity, which is why the “nation” and “state” are so deeply intertwined. And finally, fourthly, the nation is a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 16). It is why individuals die for their nation – they conceive of themselves as inseparable from it and are therefore willing to be slaughtered for the state. Such actions, although sometimes full of valor, are motivated by imagination.

Ironically, the more passionate nationalism is, the more it discredits itself as an ideology by turning to violent means to achieve an imagined vision. As Josep Llobera writes, “in the long run, the history of Western Europe is the history of the qualified failure of the so called nation-state” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). However, despite the atrocities committed in its name, nationalism relentlessly survives with each decade. Nations amass popular credibility and power through two means – by creating the “Other” and the myth. In order for nationalism to take root, it must first differentiate itself from other groups or individuals that are unlike it. Commonalities are formed within a particular group – be it cultural, religious, or political – and eventually synthesized, popularized, and normalized and made natural in contrast to the “Other.”

II. The Creation of the “Other”

In order for an ethno-national state to affirm itself, it first has to make clear what it is not. This process of differentiation is crucial in the development of nationalism since it distinguishes the “nation” from those that are outside it, and thus creates an imagined community for its people to follow. However, imagined communities are not created in a vacuum; there must be particular historical forces at play in order for a group to conceive of themselves, collectively, with one national identity. Take the case of Catalan nationalism – it emerged as a result of regional repression, an ineffective Spanish state, industrialization, romantic literature, and a strong Catholic base (Tonkin et. all 250, 251, 252). The final differentiating factor is, ultimately, language which is arguably “the symbol and the lively expression of the personality of [the] people” (Conversi, 55). Catalan nationalism and its history provide us with many sources on how the intelligentsia made an effort to differentiate Catalans from other Spaniards. The dichotomy of being “Catalan” and “not-Catalan” is an important one, since the whole purpose of its nationalist project was to create an “irrefutable and indestructible Catalan personality” (Conversi, 55). Thus, the creation of Catalan nationalism involved the creation of core values and language as a means to differentiate Catalan as a legitimate nationality. And such was not just the case in Catalonia, but for all nationalist movements that sought validity in the post-Enlightenment era.

III. The Myth of Nationalism

The creation of nationalist myths goes hand-in-hand with differentiating the nation from others. The myth functions as a unique starting point for national consciousness – it inspires and creates a common story of origin for all the people in its supposed jurisdiction. The need for myths is apparent in virtually all nationalist movements. For Croatians, they found national solidarity by identifying themselves as the cultural ancestors of the historic Illyrians who lived in the Balkans around 5th century B.C. In another case, the Scottish Highlands created their own nationalist myth by distinguishing themselves from Irish culture. As Hugh Trevor-Roper writes in The Invention of Tradition:

It occurred in three stages. First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original, and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by historic Lowland Scotland… (Hobsbawm, 16).

scot5In an effort to forge a national identity, the Scottish intelligentsia told stories of Scotts resisting Roman armies, called Irish-influenced ballads their own, and even popularized their own non-Irish traditional garb by the 18th century (Hobsbawm, 17, 19). This was done all in efforts to differentiate themselves from Ireland, who they felt culturally overshadowed the Highlands.

The creation of myths is the imaginative potential of nationalist projects. The sheer literary talent of piecing together a coherent (although fictitious) narrative was a product of 18th century Romanticism. Eventually, these tales became ingrained in the culture from which they sprung; the myths began to be taken as true, as if they had a life of their own. These stories’ main purpose was to establish a grander narrative which grounds the community in core values and common history. Thus, myths are a necessary component of any nationalist project – they reinvigorate a community to stand on its own, distinguishes them as unique, and ultimately gives them a reason to take up arms to defend their imagined history.

IV. Inventing Traditions

Thus far, we have discussed the steady progression of nationalist development. First, it begins by taking an essentialist position on a group’s origin. From here, differentiation begins by defining the particular group separate from the “Other.” It is then that the creation of “myths” arises in order to justify collective consciousness and action.  Once a national identity is established, it becomes the responsibility of the state and/or the people to maintain it.

Structures and codes of behavior are usually maintained through invented traditions, by using repetition and appealing to continuity with the past.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines this phenomenon in the opening pages of The Invention of Tradition:

‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (Hobsbawm, 1).

Invented traditions function as the maintainers of state power. They are constructed with the intent of making the custom appear “historic” or “natural.” Such was the case for the British Monarchy, which was forced to reinvent itself in the late 19th century amidst an educated, growing middle-class. However, this process was not easy and required many failures on part of the ruling class to perfect its rituals. David Cannadine in chapter four of The Invention of Tradition writes, “For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco” (Hobsbawm, 117). This was because royal ceremonies in Great Britain before the mid-19th century were historically done behind closed doors, rather than as public spectacles (Hobsbawm, 116). With the rise of liberalism, the British monarchy had to create a ceremonial tradition that would quell the public’s animosity towards the Crown. They exacted it to a science – appealing to tradition, populism, and the myth of their necessity as an institution. Soon, the British royal family became the living embodiment of national pride, whose “traditions” live on to this day.

However, when a hegemonic imperialist power invents traditions, these changes have ramifications far outside its nationalist borders. The British Empire also imposed these traditions on its colonies, in an effort to naturalize their exploitation and justify their expansionism. It is not a coincidence that the rise of the British monarchy’s symbolic power, starting in the late 19th century, was directly around the time of it colonizing Africa. The same process of “inventing tradition” would be applied to Africa to make them submissive to Anglo-Saxon power. Terence Ranger writes in chapter 6 of The Invention of Tradition:

But serviceable as the monarchial ideology was to the British, it was not enough to provide the theory or justify the structures of colonial governance on the spot. Since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social, and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans (Hobsbawm, 212).

A hierarchy was enforced in Africa which placed “white” as the ideal amongst the people living there. The watchful eye of Anglo-Saxon officials became symbolic of the African peoples’ position in relation to British power and was justified through appeals to nature and history. With this also came justifications from Protestant theology – the mantra was that it was the white man’s burden that the British have taken upon themselves, out of benevolence, just to help these people succeed. This, however, could not be farther from the truth.

A British ceremony commemorating Ado’s Kingdom assimilation into greater British Nigeria [1897 – 1899]. It was through these rituals that the British empire created traditions and assumed dominance. They did it by creating a spectacle.

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British imperial power expanded its power by forcing groups to assimilate into their empire with the threat of force. In this photo, British colonial administrators meet with Nigerian representatives.

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The British Royalty, starting in the late 19th century, began to rely on aesthetics and ritual to enforce their necessity. In an age of growing democratization, the royalty needed to stay relevant by making each of their actions a symbolic event. The coronation stood, above all else, a symbolic representation of the passing of imperial power. The above photo is a postcard meant to endorse national pride from 1911.

are-we-afraid-no

“Are We Afraid? No!” is a jingoistic British postcard from WW1. The five pups represent the best of Britain’s colonial territories (i.e. Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa). The exact year of the postcard is unknown.

poster

This is a french poster by the Mouvement Anti-Apartheid (also known as the Campagne Anti-OutSpan or C.O.A). The group was founded in 1975 and supported the African National Congress and the struggle against apartheid. This was part of its first campaign to boycott Outspan oranges from South Africa in an attempt to destroy the Western hegemony in Africa.

The British Crown is an especially relevant example of invented traditions. Because its influence was so widespread, Anglo-Saxon culture permeates and invents itself as “natural” even to this day. Still, Great Britain aside, virtually all nationalist state projects appeal to a type of invented tradition to maintain itself and make its institutions seem “natural” – be it the caste system in India, or the romanticizing of the Founding Fathers in the United States, or even the appeal to the Roman Empire in fascist Italy under the rule of Mussolini. All of these invented traditions appeal to supposed “historical continuity” and attempt to make a narrative to justify its institutional power. Invented traditions are the means with which nationalism maintains itself as relevant and necessary with each passing generation.

V. Popularizing the Nation

The spread of nationalism goes hand-in-hand with its invented traditions. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities outlines a few historical patterns which explains how virtually all nationalist movements popularized themselves. Much of it has to do with “print capitalism,” which was the commodification and mass-production of texts. It ultimately led to a codified language, a “national” language, and extinguished any dialects that previously existed locally. The rise of print capitalism was a steady process, but it eventually grew to encapsulate every aspect of life. Anderson notes, “at least 20,000,000 books had already been printed by 1500… if manuscript knowledge was scarce and arcane lore, print knowledge lived by reproducibility and dissemination” (Anderson, 37). In turn, the print expansion also brought with it a level of greater community, one which extended far beyond kinship and familial ties. It molded a type of national consciousness, a collective identity, by standardizing the means of communication. Therefore, the birth of nationalism can very much be associated with the birth of capitalism and their development is intertwined.

Far beyond print capitalism, other historical factors merged to further solidify nationalism in public consciousness. The spread of the newspaper connected previously unrelated social phenomenon into an implicitly greater narrative, which eventually led to nationalism. Anderson writes:

In this way, the newspaper… quite naturally, even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops, and prices belonged (Anderson, 62).

Along with the newspaper, the homogenization of time with the steady adoption of the Gregorian calendar created “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time” which fits nicely into nationalist narratives of continuity. All of these factors – propagated through print capitalism – led to a kind of philological revolution, while also creating a common measurement of time, which allowed for the birth of the collective consciousness that would become nationalism.

VI. Conclusion and Final Remarks

Nationalism derives its prowess from essentialism, myths, and differentiation. It popularizes itself through print, through national language, and through common narratives for the future. And finally, it cements its dominance through repetition and invented traditions. The nuances of how nations individually created their sense of pride are invariably unique, mostly due to differences in relative power, but the general way nationalism is conceived is virtually the same in every historical situation.

Although nationalism is derived from invented traditions and mythological imagination, this does not delegitimize its potential as a political force. Nationalism has proved to be one of the most dynamic phenomena in history, constantly re-inventing itself with each generation. Although as a rule, nationalism is an imaginative community, it has its uses in fighting hegemonic power and re-vitalizing exploited peoples. As Stuart Hall writes in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: “I do not know an example of any group or category of the people of the margins, of the locals, who have been able to mobilize themselves, socially, culturally, economically, politically… who have not gone through some such series of moments in order to resist their exclusion, their marginalization” (King, 53). It for this reason that nationalism cannot be discarded purely on the basis of being imaginative – it has the potential to be a necessary counter to dominant power, and has revitalized marginalized people throughout the world, especially in the post-colonial era. As a means, nationalism is a sound anti-imperialist platform, but it still fails to provide an end. The historic end-goal of nationalism is the victory of the particular nation. What this end entails is potentially open to reactionary violence, and even political manipulation, which has been the case for the much of modern history. Nationalism breeds competition; It may function as a means to liberate a group, but it fails to provide a proper end.

***

– Tonkin, Elizabeth. McDonald, Maryon. Chapman, Malcolm. History and Ethnicity. Routledge, 1989. New York. pp. 247 – 261. Print.

– Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso Books, 1983. London. Print.

– Conversi, Daniele. Ethics and Racial Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. Routledge, 1990. pp. 50 – 70. Print.

– Hobsbawm, Eric. Ranger, Terrance. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983. New York. Print.

–  King, Anthony D. Culture, Globalization, and the World System. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Minneapolis. Print.

“The Arrival of the Croats at the Adriatic Sea” (1905) by Oton Iveković

Yugoslav nationalism is a unique phenomenon that credits its historical development to over a century of anti-imperialist politics. It was the culmination of decades of underground nationalist projects, one of idealism and sometimes even pragmatism. The growth of a “Yugoslav identity” owes its very formation to a synthesis of many different elements of Balkan culture with the common interest of security against future imperialist powers. That is to say, Yugoslav nationalism had to be created from independent nationalist movements which lacked the power to manifest themselves on their own. Croatia and Serbia were the main players in the creation of this new nationalist vision, forging a nationalist alliance despite differences in interest. It was from here that the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes came into existence and, eventually, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. This essay will analyze Croatia’s ideological contribution to the development of Yugoslavism starting from the creation of its own national awakening up until the establishment of the first Yugoslav project, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

I. Developing a Croatian National Consciousness

In the 19th century, Croatia was a kingdom within a kingdom within an empire. The Kingdom of Croatia pledged its allegiance to the Kingdom of Hungary which was part of the great Austrian Empire. It found relative autonomy in the federation, but feared growing nationalism in Hungary would result in increased Magyarization of Croatia into a Greater Hungary. As a response, the Croatian intelligentsia felt it necessary to revitalize their traditions, folklore, and history in hopes of preserving it. Jonathan Sperber writes in his book The European Revolutions: 1848 – 1851:

[The 19th century] was the period when the smaller, mostly Slavic nationalities of the empire – Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Ukrainian – remembered their historical traditions, revived their native languages as literary languages, reappropriated their traditions and folklore, in short reasserted their existence as nations [1].

The intelligentsia in 19th century Croatia realized that national awakening required a universal Croatian language and a literate population to maintain it. At the time, Croatia was broken into many different local dialects and lacked any homogeneity in the way its people spoke. Most Croatians were part of the illiterate peasant class. Thereby, the first step for the Croatian bourgeois class was to facilitate the printing of books to further national consciousness. Maksimilijan Vrhovac, a bishop from the city of Zagreb, is credited as one of its prime ideological architects by collecting many of the nation’s “spiritual treasures,” translating the Bible and other texts into Kajkavian Croatian (a dialect spoken in the north), and even appealing in front of the Croatian parliament in hopes of opening a public library in the capital [2]. Vrhovac would set the foundation for what would decades later become the Illyrian Movement.

Statue of Ljudevit Gaj in Zagreb, Croatia

Statue of Ljudevit Gaj in Zagreb, Croatia

In the beginning of the 1830s, a group of young Croatian writers assembled in Zagreb calling for the unity of all Slavs within the Habsburg Monarchy. These young writers were led by Ljudevit Gaj who published Brief Basics of the Croatian-Slavonic Orthography in 1830 which was the first text that established a common Croatian writing system [3]. The goals of the Illyrian Movement then became actualized into tangible demands; the Illyrians wanted a standard language and culture to counterbalance growing Hungarian power. A single language, they felt, was the only way to achieve national revitalization. Gaj penned a proclamation in 1835 outlining the goals of the movement:

There can only be one true literary language in Illyria… It is not found in a single place, or a single country, but in the whole of Illyria… Our grammar and our dictionary is the whole of Illyria. In that huge garden there are beautiful flowers everywhere: let us gather everything of the best in one wreath, which will never wither [4].

For the Illyrian movement, national consciousness extended far beyond what is today modern-day Croatia – they took their inspiration from the commonality of being historically “Illyrian.” The Illyrian people were a group of Indo-European tribes who mainly lived in the Western Balkans. The historical group spanned from modern Slovenia all the way down to Macedonia. The Illyrian movement would become the spiritual precursor to Yugoslavism, encompassing the same lands in hopes of creating a unified Southern Slavic people.

The movement proved to be immensely successful within Croatian upper-class, but found little support from the peasant class and those living outside the Kingdom of Croatia [5]. Within where it was popular, however, it found literary success. Epic poems were published in “Illyrian grammar” (which would eventually evolve into Serbo-Croatian), the future Croatian national anthem was written by lyricist Antun Mihanović, and Croatian newspapers were allowed to be published starting in 1834. Ljudevit Gaj was responsible for establishing the first one in 1835 and thus was the pioneer of the beginning of Croatian journalism [6]. He also began the literary journal Danica as an attachment to the paper to further Croatian literary achievements. Each issue contained the motto of “[a] people without a nation/is like a body without bones” fully capturing the spirit and vigor of the Illyrian movement’s idealism. In the 1838 edition of Danica, Gaj further outlined the goals of the Illyrians against its detractors and critics. He writes:

Our intention is not to abolish individual names, but unify them under a general name, because each of the individual names carries its own individual history, which gathered together, comprise a more general history of the Illyrian nation [7].

Reading rooms were established in Zagreb for Illyrians to meet and discuss the growing linguistic developments. The first Croatian opera was written by composer Vatroslav Lisinski in 1846. The Illyrian movement thus achieved significant success throughout the Croatian intelligentsia, only to be suppressed in the wave of revolutions that would sweep Europe in 1848.

Despite these national developments, the Illyrians found themselves at odds with the Hungarian nobility and those supporting it. In 1843, the use of “Illyrian” was banned by Hungarian authorities [8]. Tensions surmounted on July 29th 1845 when the People’s Party (alternatively called the Illyrian Party) felt cheated when a Hungarian-allied candidate won during the elections held for newly-established Zagreb County of the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia. Members and supporters of the People’s Party filled the square in protest which angered the Croatian ban, ethnic Hungarian Fancis Haller, and the Austrian army was called to subdue the protestors. Thirteen protestors were killed and over two dozen were injured in the ensuing violence which would be remembered as the “July Victims” [9]. Croatian opinion in Zagreb was split – those of the Illyrian movement felt that the only means of securing a Croatian future was the establishment of an independent Croatian state whereas some Hungarian-Croats and other ethnic Croats felt that Croatia was best served through close relations with Hungary. With fear as an impediment to further progress, the Illyrian movement would have only one major victory after 1845. In October of 1847, with the help of politician Ivan Sakcinski, Croatian replaced Latin as the official language of the kingdom through a unanimous vote in parliament [10]. However, this major victory would be overshadowed by censorship and a crackdown on dissent in 1849 by Emperor Francis Joseph. A new constitution was created by the Austrian autocracy and the Danica soon went out of print. This effectively put an end to the Illyrian movement and any hopes of a unified Pan-Slavic state, but its spiritual adherents kept the fire going covertly, enough to influence the future trend of Yugoslav nationalism in the decades ahead.

With the suppression of the Illyrian movement, new beginnings had to be made to ensure the progress achieved was not in vein. Writers from mainly Croatia and Serbia (including one individual from Slovenia) met in Vienna in March of 1850 to discuss how Southern Slavic literature could be unified under a common banner to fight the growing empires that existentially threatened it [11]. The agreement that followed among them would become known as the Vienna Literary Agreement which established a basic method of writing for mainly Serbians and Croatians. The agreement was not formalized institutionally of course, but it provided inspiration for the codification of Serbo-Croatian as one especially during the years of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the latter half of the 20th century.

II. The Beginnings of Yugoslavism

With the suppression of the Illyrian movement, the Pan-Slavic project had to find a new name. While the Illyrian movement was mainly a literary and linguistic ideal, future calls for a Pan-Slavic state had to be put in the context of institutions and governmental structures. Whereas the limitations of the Illyrians were that they focused only on language as a means of uniting Southern Slavs, its successor needed to transcend these limitations and appeal directly to cultural and historical unity. The Illyrians’ spiritual heir soon became Yugoslavism and its most passionate adherents. Once again, Pan-Slavism found its face in the Croatian intelligentsia.

In the later-half of the 19th century two Croatian Catholic bishops, Josip Strossmayer and Franjo Rački, were the main partisans for the Yugoslav cause and supported academic institutions in both Serbia and Slovenia. However, nationalist competition between Serbia prevented their ideas from being spread outside of the Croatian bourgeois class and they faced similar problems that the Illyrians faced decades prior. Yugoslavism also failed to penetrate the majority peasant class in Croatia, appealing to mostly liberal Catholic clergymen and the literary elite. As Lenard J. Cohen writes in Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition, “Obstacles… to the Yugoslav idea… down to the lower strata’s predominant emotional commitment to its own individual locales, can, to a certain extent, be explained by the educational backwardness of Croatia’s agrarian population in the nineteenth century” [12]. The Croatian peasant class also lacked the “information about other South Slav regions and people” and thereby could not even conceive of a Yugoslav position. Most of the Serbian upper-class faced similar issues in mobilizing their largely poor agrarian population, whose “lower social layer lived like the Croats, as a subordinate agricultural stratum within the confines of the oppressive Ottoman imperial system, and also suffered from education deprivation” [13]. Most of the Serbian intelligentsia also scoffed at the idea of a Pan-Slavic identity and instead focused on Serbian aims at freeing themselves from Ottoman rule. They found little benefit in joining a union with the Croats against the Austro-Hungarian Empire; they had their own struggle against the Ottomans.

However, in the mid-1860s this pattern of non-cooperation between Serbian and Croatian interests was interrupted. Josip Strossmayer and Serbian foreign minister Illija Garašanin agreed on a plan that would begin the process of creating a Yugoslav state independent from both Austria and Turkey [14]. Nevertheless, the Serbian intelligentsia lacked commitment to the issue and the plan fell apart within two years. This was because Illija Garašanin was not attracted to the romanticized Yugoslav ideal espoused by Croatian thinkers; rather, Garašanin realized that Yugoslavism fit nicely into his conception of a “Greater Serbia.” He was, in fact, one of the founders of the concept, writing in his 1844 text Načertanije: “A plan must be constructed which does not limit Serbia to her present borders, but endeavors to absorb all the Serbian people around her”[15]. Thus, the question just who was Serbian became increasingly relevant among the Serbian upper-class. Vuk Karadžić, a prominent Serbian linguist of the 19th century, argued that “Serbians” encompass all those who spoke the Štokavian dialect which included large areas of Croatia and most of Bosnia. For Karadžić, these people were “Serbs who did not accept the name” and were to be assimilated into Greater Serbia [16]. It was these differences that further alienated the goal of Croatian Yugoslavism and that of Greater Serbia. Soon, Serbia’s expansionist aims would find cover in their support for Yugoslavism which gave them a platform with which to justify Serbian hegemony and power in the 20th century.

III. Struggle, Terrorism, and the Birth of the Yugoslav State        

Yugoslavism remained relatively unknown and too idealistic until the turn of the 20th century. In 1908, Bosnia and Herzegovina was annexed was by Austria-Hungary which angered Southern Slavs as they began to collectively see themselves as a victim of foreign imperialism (i.e. Yugoslavs). Famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović  began writing poetry arguing for a “Yugoslav race” and even built a sculpture commemorating Serbian folk hero Prince Marko at the International Exhibition in Rome in 1911. He wished to bridge the cultural and artistic gap between Serbians and Croatians through his work, becoming immensely popular during his lifetime. In 1912, the Balkan War added another reason for the necessity of a Southern Slavic union. With a weakening of the Austrian Empire and the end of Ottoman occupation in the Balkan states by 1913, the Yugoslav project was on the verge of being actually realized.

Gavrilo Princip arrested after murdering the Austrian Archduke and his wife. He was only nineteen, one month shy of his twentieth birthday.

In the following years, the Balkans would violently erupt and organize itself on different lines. Serbia began funding paramilitary groups that would engage in anti-imperialist struggle in hopes of creating a “Yugoslav state” with Serbia as its national leader. The group Young Bosnia came to prominence in the early 1900s composed of Serbians, Croatians, and Bosniaks. Their ideals were inspired by revolutionary youth movements and the works of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and socialist/anarchist politics. After multiple failed attempts on state leaders, Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on the 28th of June, 1914. Angering Austria-Hungary, the empire issued an ultimatum against Serbia to stop its violence and made a list of concrete demands.  World War I ensued a month after the assassination, against the interests of the Austrian-Hungarian autocracy. During Princip’s trial, he loudly proclaimed “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria” [17]. For many Southern Slavs, the creation of a Yugoslav state seemed inevitable.

However, before a Yugoslav state could be constructed, it had to be agreed on just what was to be established in the years ahead. Croats (including the Croatian Peasant Party and other social democratic parties) and the Serbian diaspora living in Croatia and Bosnia preferred a federated system of governance which would allow different Southern Slavic ethnic groups to cooperate amongst each other. Conversely, Serbs living in Serbia had plans for a Greater Serbia or a centralized Yugoslavia dictated by Belgrade, Serbia’s capital [18]. While Serbia was funding paramilitary groups aimed at uniting Southern Slavs, Croatia organized the Yugoslav Committee which was given the task of mapping out the future state. Its board was composed of mostly Croats and a few Serbian and Slovenian members. Although Serbian and Croatians aims for a Yugoslav state were fundamentally different, the Yugoslav Committee signed a compromise declaration with the Kingdom of Serbia in 1917 [19]. The declaration allowed for a parliamentary monarchy, composed of three nations, universal suffrage, and two different alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic) that were equal before the law. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was established in 1918 with support from the Allied Powers. And it was then that the Yugoslav project became realized, albeit not as many Croatians had envisioned it.

IV. Conclusion and Remarks

Yugoslav nationalism was the product of literary romanticism, idealism, and anti-imperialist politics. However, it began very different in Serbia than it did in Croatia. Concepts of “Greater Serbia” constantly clouded any hope of a truly federalized cooperative state among Southern Slavs and instead replaced it with Serbian hegemony. This became apparent in the years following the formation of the Yugoslav Kingdom and the Serbian monarch’s established dictatorship in July of 1929, much to the outrage of the other ethnicities within Yugoslavia. Thereby, Croatians are hesitant when Serbian leaders speak of “Yugoslavia” in good light; for most Bosnians and Croatians, “Yugoslavism” has become synonymous with Serbian hegemony and power which has manifested itself in virtually every attempt at “brotherhood and unity” within the Balkans. The failed attempts at unification have stalled any proposals for federative unity within the Southern Slavic region; instead, individual nations have turned to nationalism and self-reliance as a means of coping with larger powers. As this proves ineffective, since Balkan states lack any bargaining power against Western nations, feelings of the Illyrian Movement and Yugoslavism might again return. However, it will return with another name as has been the cyclical case in the Balkans ever since national consciousness took hold in the tumultuous region during the 19th century.

***

1.     Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851.”(Cambridge University Press,                 2nd Edition, 2005)

2.     Šanjek, Franjo. Christianity in the Croatian Religion. [Kršćanstvo na hrvatskom prostoru].                     (Kršćanska sadašnjost, 1996).

3.     Becker, J. Carl. A Modern Theory on Language Evolution. (iUniverse, Inc. 2004).

4.     Vukcevich, Ivo. Croatia: New Language, New Nationality, and New State. (XLIBRIS, 2013).

5.     Marc, L. Greenberg. The Illyrian Movement: A Croatian Vision of South Slavic Unity. (Oxford                                 University Press, 2011).

6.     Ibid. 3.

7.     Gaj, Ljudevit. “Danica.” (National and University Library in Zagreb)

8.     Fishman, Joshua. Garcia, Ofelia. Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: The                                 Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts, Volume 2. (Oxford                         University Press, 2011).

9.     Hawkesworth, Celia. Zagreb: A Cultural and Literary History. (Signal Books, 2007).

10.    Press Office. 165 Years Ago Croatian Parliament Proclaimed Croatian as Official                                  Language. (Croatian Parliament, Web).

11.    Greenberg, D. Robert. Language and Identity in the Balkans. (Oxford University Press,                          2008).

12.    Cohen, J. Lenard. Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in                               Transition. (Westview Press, 2nd edition, 1995).

13.    Ibid.

14.    Göransson, Markus Balázs. A Cultural History of Serbia. (Web, 2013).

15.    Garašanin, Illija. Načertanije. (Croatian Information Center, Web).

16.    Greater Serbia: From Ideology to Aggression. (Croatian Information Center, Web, 1993).

17.    Andjelic, Neven. Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy. (Routledge, 2003).

18.    Djokić, Dejan. Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918–1992. (University of Wisconsin               Press, 2003).

19.    Dragnich, Alex N. The First Yugoslavia: Search for a Viable Political System. (Hoover                             Institution Press, 1983)

Today, while I was fidgeting around with the American flag, I kindly asked my youngest 6 year old brother to say the Pledge of Allegiance, not expecting much. He said it word for word and, despite irregular pauses between phrases, managed to recite it fully and was overly-content when he finished.

I then asked him what it meant, and I was sincerely surprised at his answer even though I should have known better; he didn’t have the slightest idea. He was just telling it as he was taught in school, without any any comprehension of what he was proudly repeating every morning in school.

Frankly, this is seemingly a product of – to borrow a word from the lexicon of Michael Parenti – Superpatriotism. He describes it in these words;

 

Superpatriots are those people who place national pride and American supremacy above every other public consideration, those who follow leaders uncritically, especially in their war policies abroad.

Parenti goes on to describe it ideologically in more detail;

The superpatriot’s America is a simplified ideological abstraction, an emotive symbol represented by other abstract symbols like the flag. It is the object of a faithlike devotion, unencumbered by honest history. For the superpatriot, those who do not share in this uncritical Americanism ought to go live in some other country.

Is the American school system raising a passive society of ‘Superpatriots?’ Although too young to understand ideological connotations and public policy or to form their own opinions, one of first lessons in elementary education is instilling vibrant nationalism, indulging them in American Exceptionalism,’ and learning the Pledge of Allegiance. This, to me, is nationalistic madness because it is this type of ideology that drives self-destructive policies and cultivates, either intentionally or not, a breed of obedience that is dangerous to civic duties and functions.

This you are either with or against us’ nationalist fervor is a true danger to a societal vigilance; if anything nationalism should be reasoned, discussed, and accepted voluntarily (if even that) at a certain coming of age, not imposed on the feeblest of minds.

Moreover, why are we replacing skepticism with blind love of the state? As Howard Zinn said: “Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism!” 

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